New preschool gets urban kids back to the land

Tykes log some time painting in Elements Preschool’s nature-based backyard.
Tykes log some time painting in Elements Preschool’s nature-based backyard.

BY CODY BROOKS  |  If you turn the corner past the Burger King on Delancey St. and walk up Suffolk, out of the corner of your eye you may see a stretch of bamboo leaves reaching over a wooden wall in between the concrete and brick buildings. Beyond that wooden wall is Elements Preschool, a nature-based preschool where the point, to the fear of many New York City parents, is for kids to run amok and get dirty.

Newly opened in June, Elements is the work of owner Shilpa Sethi, who designed the preschool based on both Scandinavian “forest schools” and her own experiences growing up in rural India. According to Sethi, the concept of a forest school is straightforward: A child’s inquisitiveness is the best tool for learning, and the rich world of nature has a lot to be inquisitive about.

Popularized in Scandinavia in the 1950s, these schools prize not just the intellectual rewards from a teacher-led walk into the woods, but the emotional, almost meditative learning from simply being in nature. They were designed to combat what New York Times best-selling author Richard Louv called in 2005 “nature-deficit disorder,” when a child has so little contact with nature that psychological problems can develop, such as attention disorders or anxiety.

It makes sense then that the large outdoor area of Elements is the preschool’s leading selling point. A walk through the bamboo-forested alleyway opens into a verdant rectangular backyard, sectioned off into distinct little universes so children can explore different facets of nature.

A dirt mound in the middle of the yard is a big hit, children spraying it with water hoses to make mud, which they stomp in and dig up. A large tree rises from the woodland area, littered with pinecones, where Sethi has brought in ladybugs and other insects to encourage a small ecosystem.

Ten feet away is a garden with cucumbers and strawberries, among other fruits and vegetables, which the children use in the preschool’s kitchen to learn spelling, literacy and mathematics and to expand their palate through cooking.

Sethi’s prime worry is getting more New York parents onboard with the concept. At first, she explained that most of the interest has been from parents with a more European mindset, only to concede after a pause, “Well…they’re all actually European.” One mom took a tour and loved the idea of the place, only to ask Sethi if her son could be removed from playing with the dirt and other grubby things outside. Sethi responded that Elements would likely not be a good fit for them.

This apprehension is something Sethi tries hard to solve while maintaining the principles of Elements. The dirt used in the outdoor area is “clean dirt,” she explained with a laugh. The preschool found a farm on Long Island with dirt free from harmful chemicals and other irritants and had shipped it to Manhattan.

Preschoolers not only learn about the ABC's but also spend time in a tepee at Elements.
Preschoolers not only learn about the ABC’s but also spend time in a tepee at Elements.

Sethi wants the children to get dirty. From a child’s point of view, the natural world can be thought of as an infinitely varied set of Legos, allowing kids to explore how natural elements work and encouraging them to use their imagination to manipulate and build. Another benefit of dirty learning is that being exposed to the bacteria within dirt “boosts their immune systems,” Sethi pointed out, which is true. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out that epidemiological studies link First World cleanliness to increased rates of allergies and asthma; children need exposure to germs early on while the immune system is developing so that it learns how to fend for itself, the study notes.

Not wanting to be overly bohemian, Elements makes sure its children learn basic math and literacy skills to prepare them for kindergarten — just from a different angle, such as through cooking, for example. Instead of kids being “huddled from one corner to the other,” as Sethi puts it, the teachers provide regimented segments of learning and also free play, which turns into a free-for-all that the teachers watch and direct when opportunity strikes.

The secret is out about the "secret garden" at Elements Preschool.  Photo by Cody Brooks
The secret is out about the “secret garden” at Elements Preschool. Photo by Cody Brooks

As an illustration of this, take what teachers did one day when it started raining. They and children used bamboo and a clear plastic tarp to make a tepee. They sat inside it, watching droplets of water pitter-patter above their heads and slide down to the ground. This gave the teachers a chance to explain what rain is and why it does what it does, all while the children experienced it viscerally.

Elements is a novelty in New York City, though forest schools are still popular in Scandinavia today. Sethi hopes the concept will finally jump over the Atlantic.

A view of the backyard play area, which is really a learning area. Photo by Cody Brooks
A view of the backyard play area, which is really a learning area. Photo by Cody Brooks